We failed, for example, to find ways to shore up the black-owned businesses we built up during the days of segregation so that they could compete against larger, better-funded white-controlled corporations once the protective niche provided by American apartheid had disappeared. We didn’t devise strategies for making sure that all of our children got good educations once the white students we were trying to integrate with — along with many of those from the burgeoning black middle class — were withdrawn from inner-city public schools. We still haven’t come up with an effective response to the conservative backlash that has turned Barack Obama into a lame duck less than a year after his triumphant election to a second term.
One thing will be painfully clear on Aug. 28 when Obama steps up to the podium to answer the demand that King issued a half-century ago: The colorblind, lift-all-boats approach to social policy that the president has been forced to adopt just doesn’t work. Although conservatives routinely stigmatize the notion of government action that specifically addresses the plight of impoverished people of color as playing the race card, it has become increasingly clear that the damage done to many of our people by 250 years of slavery, a century of Jim Crow and the devastating economic shifts that we are living through in the wake of the civil rights movement was much crueler than we imagined.
It’s no accident that the median wealth of black families is 20 times less than that of white families or that the average income of black families is only half that of white families. It’s no accident that there is still a yawning chasm between the educational achievement of blacks and whites. These inequalities are the direct result of centuries of explicitly racist social policies whose malign consequences cannot be wiped out by simply declaring an official end to racial discrimination.
Like Europe after World War II, much of black America remains in need of massive reconstruction. But all too often we’ve failed as a nation to recognize that those needs required special attention and a commitment of several generations. This isn’t exactly news. As President Lyndon Johnson observed in 1965: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
It’s been way too long since we heard a president, including Obama, make such a frank declaration about the nation’s need to redress its legacy of racial oppression. More important, LBJ followed up with specific policies to address the inequalities that he decried. He had a plan.
But I don’t expect that from President Obama, who has shied away from the issue of racial inequality except when circumstances like the Trayvon Martin case compelled him to take it on. He faces extraordinary opposition in Congress and has no effective means of defanging it. Until and unless we give him a Congress he can work with, he’s hamstrung. It’s not Obama’s fault. He is simply playing the bad hand he’s been dealt.
That’s why, when Obama steps to the podium next week, I expect another lofty exhortation about the need to recommit ourselves to reaching the promised land, with few specifics about how we’re supposed to get there. We need to hear some serious plans for addressing our nightmare, but all we’re going to get is the same old dream.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.